Berry Picking in Southeast Alaska

Image taken by the author.

It’s berry picking season here in Southeast Alaska. Right now, blueberries, salmonberries, wild strawberries, thimbleberries, currants, and huckleberries are in abundance along creeks, roadsides, and mountain shrubs. Articles from historic Alaska newspapers chronicled the status of wild berries. Without the modern convenience of the Internet, or even comprehensive berry guides, people turned to newspapers and relied on the berry picking know-how of their peers in order to harvest their own bounty of berries.

Note the Berry, Gentle Tourist: One of the things that attracted vast attention on the part of the crowd of tourists in the city today and most impossible of belief of all the strange things they saw and were told, was the Alaskan strawberries on display at the stores. Alaskan strawberries as large as English walnuts on display just as a matter of course- they all smiled incredulously. But it is true, gentle tourist. These berries just now to be seen at the stores come from the vicinity of Haines- just fourteen miles down the canal, and as pretty a town and neighborhood as is to be seen out doors. Perhaps you have not seen the currants of which the people of Skagway have been "putting up" bushels and bushels. The currants are wild and grow upon the hill sides everywhere about Skagway so luxuriantly as to make of the gathering a pleasant picnic. Wild raspberries are just now "coming in" and the picking of these picnickers will turn their attention shortly. Oh yes, gentle tourist, you who have been taught that nothing grows up here but the Muir glacier, these things are hard to believe but they are true. No where on earth does the huckle or "blue" berry grow as it does along the coast of Alaska. The salmon berry is a wonder for production and beauty. As for the strawberry, those that you see are cultivated but they grow in abundance at many places wild. These are among the things you should know about Alaska, gentle tourist.
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 06 Aug. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

When going berry picking, it is important to take necessary precautions:

Be mindful of your surroundings. Berries can grow almost everywhere, and many plants can grow several feet tall. These plants can disguise uneven ground, and a false step can send you tumbling down a ravine. A handful of berries is not worth the risk of a serious injury. Encounters with bears or other wild life can occur as well, so it is best to make noise to make others aware of your presence.

Competition in Blueberry Range: A party who is too modest to wish his name in print, was picking blueberries on Salmon creek yesterday and left a half-filled can while he climbed further up the side hill in quest of berries. Hearing a racket behind him, he looked back and beheld a cub bear helping himself to the berries in the can. Nor did he dispute their possession for, standing by and watching her offspring enjoy the feast, was mamma bear, almost as big as a Missouri mule. One glance was sufficient for the berry picker, who lost no time in placing himself in the vicinity of a substantial tree.
Image credit: The Stroller’s weekly and Douglas Island news. (Juneau, Alaska), 13 Aug. 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Bring a plant identification book. Although this point may seem obvious, many berries can appear similar, and what you don’t know can kill you. Bookstores often carry a wide selection of pamphlets and books on berries and berry-like plants that use photos for clear identification. And don’t forget to wash your berries once you get home!

A Few Things Sitka Enjoys: Small fruits of many kinds and flavors growing from the beach to the tops of the mountains. The red and yellow salmon berry the black red and blue huckle berry, the nagoon, black currant thimble-berry, bunch-berry and a great many others.
Image credit: The Thlinget. (Sitka, Alaska), 01 June 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Dress for inclement weather. Even though the hot weather this past month has been a welcome reprieve from the overcast skies and rain, it is important to wear long sleeves and pants to protect your skin from insects and other plants. Because berry plants are often near water, Xtratuf boots or shoes that are waterproof are a must. While Alaska does not have the abundance of poison oak and poison ivy that the Lower 48 has, we have plenty of cow parsnip. Cow parsnip is a ubiquitous plant and skin irritant that can cause rashes when brushed up against exposed skin. Additionally, the sap from cow parsnip can render skin photosensitive and can cause sunburns.

Alaska: Its Resources and Possibilities: The Alaska strawberry is sui generis: it has a delicacy of flavor which its brother of the south lacks, or has lost. It is large, it is luscious, and it leaves a lingering regret behind- a regret that it is not a perennial. And then there is the wild raspberry, richer in flavor by far than that of southern climes; and nowhere can you find a blueberry that appeals to the palate, as does the blueberry of the Alaska wilds. Then the great red and yellow salmon berries make the woods in late summer a place of beauty, and the fruit a joy that can be 'preserved' for winter. The black currant which also grows in profusion, makes the finest of jellies and that kind of wine that maketh the heart glad, of the sourdough or chechako. Besides all these may be had for the gathering the high and low-bush cranberries, unexpecelled the world over.
Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 01 Jan. 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Be patient- and have a full tank of gas! It can be frustrating to search for berries and come up empty. Once-reliable spots can become picked over, and it can take some driving around to find another berry hot spot. Asking around longtime residents can be useful, but some can be unwilling to divulge prized locations. Checking around online and on social media are good ways to gauge decent areas for berries.

Berries of all kinds are abundant this year and berry parties are just the style nowadays. the red and yellow Salmon berry is just in its prime, while the blue berries of several different kinds are everywhere.
Image credit: The Thlinget. (Sitka, Alaska), 01 Aug. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

And lastly,

Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Among the useful items to pack are insect repellent, calamine lotion, sunscreen, water, a hat, a rainproof jacket, toilet paper, a bag for trash, granola bars, towels, a guide to wild berries and roadside plants in Alaska, and, of course, a container for holding berries (ideally one with a lid).

Happy picking- and stay safe!

Close-up photo of red and yellow salmonberries in a plastic container.
Image taken by the author.

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